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Phantom Punch: The Saudi Art Show America Didn’t See Coming

Ahmed Mater, ‘Evolution of Man’ (2010) Photo courtesy of Bates College Museum of Art

Five years ago, at the Bates Museum College of Art in Lewiston, Maine, a Saudi student stopped by anthropologist Loring Danforth’s office to suggest that he add a course on her home country to the curriculum. Today, the Museum of Art is showcasing—for the first time—artworks dreamed up by contemporary Saudi artists in the exhibition titled Phantom Punch, currently underway until March 18th. The exhibition is part of King Abdulaziz Center of Culture’s multi-year tour across the United States.

Speaking to Vogue Arabia, Danforth (a curator) says, “The exhibition aims to promote cross-cultural communication, understanding, and appreciation. It is through projects like this that we are able to transcend the real differences that separate us; draw on the equally real shared values that unite us and allow us to move toward a world with less hatred, conflict, and violence.”


Huda Beydoun, ‘Tagged and Documented’ (2013) Photo courtesy of Bates College Museum of Art

Dan Mills, co-curator and director of the Bates College Museum of Arts chimed in, “Very little is known about contemporary Saudi art and artists in America. Media accounts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are frighteningly predictable,” he recounts, commenting on the re-occurring themes of “deserts, camels, and oil” that often permeate dialogue. “With this exhibition, we have a rare opportunity to gain critical new perspectives on Saudi society and culture from a group of perceptive young artists.”

Indeed, the comprehensive exhibition features paintings, videos, calligraphy, and other forms of media by 16 leading Saudi contemporary artists—such as Ahmed Mater, Abdulnasser Gharem, and Arwa Al Neami—and two Youtube channels, including Telfaz11, that explore pressing issues in Saudi Arabian society and Saudi Arabia’s relationship to the rest of the world in a comedic way. To wit: a giant sculptural ball of microphones by Ahmad Angawi (who holds an open mic night in Saudi Arabia) explores the topic of free speech; and short videos by Youtube channel Telfaz11 such as “No Women No Drive” and “Happy”—a parody cover of Pharrell William’s hit of the same name referencing the Arab Spring—play on loop.

Phantom Punch saw 1500+ visitors during its opening days, and has been very well received by the public, despite current political tensions, Islamophobia, and pre-conceived notions, or little knowledge, about the Arab world.

The name of the exhibition was inspired by the late boxing heavyweight legend Mohammed Ali, who knocked out his opponent with a lightening quick jab in 1965. The iconic jab was christened “Phantom Punch.” When asked about the name, Mills says, “This exhibition was a complete surprise, [one] that America, Maine, and even Lewiston audiences didn’t see coming.”


Ahaad Alamoudi, ‘My Saudi Couple’ (2016) Photo courtesy of Bates College Museum of Art


Abdulnasser Gharem, ‘Ricochet’ (2015) Photo courtesy of Bates College Museum of Art

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